Walking into Mayfair Japanese restaurant Sake no Hana on a recent March afternoon, I feel decidedly un-springlike. My winter coat is on and gloomy clouds are rumbling overhead, threatening an imminent downpour. Nevertheless, staff usher me inside and up the stairs with the promise that springtime awaits.
Bundled in a woolen scarf and a thick jumper, I think that it'll take a lot more than whacking up the heating and eating a few maki rolls to convince me that winter is over.
"Sakura is the name given to cherry blossom season in Japan and hanami is the tradition of eating and drinking to celebrate the blossom and welcome spring," explains Hideki Hiwatashi, Sake no Hana's head chef, who I find at the open sushi bar next to the vast dining room.
I look up at the ceiling, which is covered in criss-crossing wooden beams. Woven between the structure is a gracefully hanging blanket of preserved white flowers and blossoms. I get the reference to sakura but as my stomach rumbles, I remember that I'm also here for hanami.
"Sakura starts in the south of Japan around February and finishes in the north around the end of May. Celebrating it in Japan is very popular and in weather reports on TV, they do a sakura report," explains Hiwatashi. "People watch to see when it will be coming to their area and then start preparing food and drink."
He continues: "Once it comes, people go out and sit under the cherry blossom from morning until midnight—eating and drinking and celebrating with friends and family. Some people wake up very early in the morning to go and get a good spot because the blossom is fleeting and sakura only lasts about a week."
Luckily, the specially installed flowers playing among the beams at Sake no Hana won't be subject to the strong winds and rain that end cherry blossom season in Japan. Instead, they'll decorate the dining room until early June. The restaurant's special sakura menu will stick around until then, too.
As Hiwatashi moves behind the sushi bar to show me how he recreates the spirit of hanami, I ask what is traditionally served at a Japanese cherry blossom picnic.
"We would prepare a big bento box with three layers. It'll use a lot of seasonal ingredients and the whole meal, including sushi and other dishes, will be in one box. You usually eat salmon but not much other meat. A lot of people cook mountain vegetables as well," he says. "It's a celebration of all the seasonal food, and new ingredients that come with spring, that are around at that time of the year."
And to wash it down?
Hiwatashi adds: "People have beer, sake, and Chuhai [a sweet, canned alcoholic drink] which is very easy to drink."
At his serene sushi bar, Hiwatashi shows me some of the elements that make up Sake no Hana's sakura bento box. Sea bass nigiri is wrapped in bamboo leaf, with copper wire expertly and effortlessly wound around to keep the leaf in place. The finished result looks like a tiny green fish with a mohican and copper scales.
My stomach rumbles again. It looks too good to eat … almost.
As Hiwatashi glides around the bar to make mushroom and okra maki rolls (minus the usual nori wrapping), I ask him to tell me more about the bento box.
"I've put together a bento box which is colourful and uses different, seasonal ingredients. It's a two-layered meal—you have the sushi and sashimi in the bento box and one is a hot meal," he tells me. "It's a celebration of all the food around in spring."
Hiwatashi brings out a fillet of salmon and, using chopsticks, places finely chopped, pickled shallots on top. Champagne yuzu miso sauce is added around the fish and pickled carrot and celery carefully placed on the plate beside it. I say that the pink pickled shallot looks like cherry blossom. Hiwatashi gives me a knowing smile.
He puts the finishing touches to the bento box, adding more crab and salmon maki rolls and tuna and shrimp nigiri. As I tuck into the sushi underneath the blossoms, feeling markedly more springlike than I did when I first entered the restaurant, Hiwatashi reminds me that sakura may be more embedded in London life than we realise.
"Look around and you'll see lots of trees in blossom around London, which means spring is coming, spring food is coming, new ingredients are coming. I'm not sure how many people stop and notice it properly," he muses. "In Japan, everyone has an image of sakura and it makes people happy. If I could help create this image for Europeans, it would be nice."
He continues: "At this time, I sometimes go out with my family to see the sakura in London and have a barbecue outside."
Barbecue in March? Even in the name of sakura, Hiwatashi is a braver man than I. I'll stick to eating sushi with the central heating on, thanks.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in March 2017.